Penn State baseball coach Rob Cooper didn’t make things easy on his team — and that was kind of the point.
The Nittany Lions kickstart their 2017 campaign this weekend with the toughest test in college baseball: a three-game series at TCU, the preseason No. 1 team in the country.
The series opener at 7:30 p.m. Friday marks the start of a new season, but also an early litmus test. The Horned Frogs, a perennial powerhouse with eight conference titles since 2004, fell in last year’s College World Series semifinals to eventual champion Coastal Carolina.
“That’s why they’re preseason ranked No. 1,” Cooper said Tuesday. “They’ve got high goals and lofty expectations this year but, you know, we can’t worry about any of that. We have to play a faceless opponent.”
Faceless or not, the Nittany Lions know what they’re going up against this weekend.
I think everyone here will tell you that we expect to win, no matter what they’re ranked and who they are.
Nick Riotto, Penn State outfielder
Penn State hosted TCU for a three-game set last May, and perhaps unsurprisingly to the casual fan, the Horned Frogs swept the Nittany Lions (6-2, 5-4, 9-5).
But Cooper was proud of not only how his team performed, but also the attitude and approach the players had before and after the games. The Nittany Lions, who finished 2016 with a 28-27 record, weren’t satisfied with any moral victories or hanging tough with TCU.
They felt as though they could have — and should have — beat the Horned Frogs.
“We played ’em hard and we played ’em competitive, but we also lost three games,” Cooper said, a hint of disappointment still in his voice. “We’ve got our own goals and our own expectations and part of that is our guys want to play in the postseason. We have to find out what we have to do to win games like that.”
Penn State outfielder Nick Riotto, one of six seniors on the squad, echoed Cooper and fully expects another competitive series this go-around.
“I think everyone here will tell you that we expect to win,” Riotto said, “no matter what they’re ranked and who they are.”
Riotto, Penn State’s primary leadoff hitter in 2016, figures to spearhead the Nittany Lion lineup. With the departures of Tyler Kendall, Jim Haley and Greg Guers, Riotto sports the best returning batting average (.304) and posted a team-high on-base percentage (.405).
Returning players expected to make an impact include infielders Conlin Hughes, Connor Klemann and Willie Burger; outfielders Jordan Bowersox and Keith Leavitt; catcher Ryan Sloniger; and freshman shortstop Joey Weisenseel.
On the hill, Cooper is going with junior right-hander Sal Biasi (5-6, 3.74 ERA in 2016) on Friday, followed by southpaw Taylor Lehman (2-9, 4.79 ERA) and righty Justin Hagenman (6-3, 3.84 ERA) on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
“Right now, we feel those guys line up good that way,” Cooper said, “and we’ll go from there.”
All three of those starters went up against the Horned Frogs last season, and after a loss and a pair of no-decisions, the trio want to do better.
That goes for Penn State as a whole, too.
The Nittany Lions, who’ve been scrimmaging each other in Holuba Hall since early fall, have been itching to get their 2017 season underway — and take another shot at TCU.
“Our guys have worked hard all fall and winter, and we’re excited to get out and play,” Cooper said. “Going down to TCU, the No. 1 team in the country, is a great challenge to get started with.”